ROME — A permanent deacon whose ministry is focused on service to the poor and hurting is an antidote to clericalism within the church because it illustrates that “to love is to serve and to serve is to reign,” Pope Francis said.

Meeting most of the Diocese of Rome’s 137 permanent deacons, their wives, children and grandchildren June 19, the pope said the liturgical role of deacons is important, but works of charity and outreach are at the heart of their identity.

Describing the purpose of diaconal ordination as “a ministry of service,” the Second Vatican Council restored the identity the ministry had for centuries before it was “reduced to an order of passage to the priesthood,” the pope told them.

Emphasizing the importance of service “helps to overcome the scourge of clericalism,” which at its core is to have “a priestly caste ‘above’ the people of God,” the pope said. “If this is not resolved, clericalism will continue in the church.”

“Deacons, precisely because they are dedicated to the service of this people, are a reminder that in the ecclesial body no one can elevate himself above others,” the pope said.

Because of a declining number of priests, some permanent deacons are administering parishes, but such tasks “do not constitute the specific nature of the diaconate. They are substitute tasks,” the pope told the group.

Pope Francis praised the decision of Cardinal Angelo de Donatis, papal vicar for Rome, to appoint a permanent deacon in mid-June to head the massive diocesan Caritas program.

The appointment emphasizes the true identity of deacons who are not “half-priests” or “special altar boys,” he said. They are called to be “caring servants who do their best to ensure that no one is excluded and the love of the Lord touches people’s lives in a tangible way.”

Called to imitate Jesus, all Christians — but especially those who minister in his name — are called to humble themselves and make themselves the servants of all, he said. “Please remember that for the disciples of Jesus, to love is to serve and to serve is to reign. Power lies in service, not in anything else.”

Service is “the center of the mystery of the church,” the pope said. “Indeed, if we do not live this dimension of service, every ministry is emptied from within, it becomes sterile, it does not bear fruit. And little by little, it becomes worldly.”

Pointing to the example of St. Francis of Assisi, who was a deacon but not a priest, Pope Francis said that deacons remind the whole church of the missionary power of love and service, bringing “God’s closeness to others without imposing themselves, serving with humility and joy.”

“The generosity of a deacon who gives of himself without seeking the top ranks has about him the perfume of the Gospel,” the pope said. “He tells of the greatness of God’s humility in taking the first step — always, God always takes the first step — to meet even those who have turned their backs on him.”

Pope Francis also asked the deacons to be good husbands, fathers and grandfathers, which can “give hope and consolation to couples who are going through difficult times and who will find in your genuine simplicity an outstretched hand. They will be able to think: ‘Look at our deacon! He is happy to be with the poor, but also with the parish priest and as well as with his children and his wife. Even with his mother-in-law.'”